In case there was any doubt about the sheer relevance of Ava DuVernay’s exemplary Martin Luther King, Jr. drama Selma, it is expressed succinctly in the lyrics from the closing song Glory by Common (who acts in the film) and John Legend: “Resistance is us, That’s why Rosa sat on the bus, That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up.” As we well know at the beginning of 2015, the struggle for black civil rights against the willingly violent powers-that-be is still not over.
The story of Dr. King’s civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama illuminates (with shocking clarity) the means by which black voices have been forcibly silenced from American democracy. We only need to recall the horrific choking death of Eric Garner – an asthmatic man who was arrested and subsequently killed by police, when he had in fact just broken up a fight – to see how incidents like these create a climate of fear, in attempt to demoralise and oppress a minority.
During the protests in Ferguson, ex-Philadelphia cop Capt. Ray Lewis explicitly stated an utterance that could so easily be applied to the time depicted in Selma: “I want to try to get a message to mainstream America that the system is corrupt, that police really are oppressing not only the black community, but also the whites. They’re an oppressive organization now controlled by the one percent of corporate America. Corporate America is using police forces as their mercenaries.” Chilling words, given how closely this description resembles the events of 1965 depicted in Selma.
Selma is fascinating, because it clearly illustrates the power dynamic that allows this systematic oppression to function; and it does so with a richly drawn cast and elegant visual identity. Much has been said already about the film, with specific historical details being debated thoroughly, such as the extent to which President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) supported, or subjugated the civil rights movement. Selma’s relationship with history is of course deserving of analysis, but its emotional power comes from a genuine sense of the uncanny.
With his lead performance David Oyelowo has given the screen a benchmark representation of Dr. King. It is no small task to portray any historical figure, let alone one so revered. Oyelowo captures the unique rhythmic cadences of Dr. King’s voice, and the preacher’s delivery that gave his speeches a lyrical power. One of the most fascinating elements of the performance is the suggested sense of mortal anxiety felt (but seemingly overcome) by Dr. King as he bravely takes on the state. This quality is integral to DuVernay’s interpretation of the story, as King contemplates what might become of his family should he die.
The film’s great strength is in how it dramatises the hardball tactics employed by Dr. King in order to advance the civil rights movement. Deaths are a tragic byproduct of this power struggle and DuVernay goes to great lengths to humanise every loss; this is in part owed to a script that affords each character space to become relatable. The film’s cast is also exemplary, with powerful turns from Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper (who famously punched Selma Sheriff Jim Clark), Colman Domingo as Ralph Abernathy and Wendell Pierce as Rev. Hosea Williams.
Cinematographer Bradford Young’s colour pallet – faded sepias, naturalistic blues and crushed blacks – adorns the film with the melancholic qualities of an Edward Hopper painting (for the days) and The Godfather (at night). It is a beautiful film to look at and perhaps one of the finest uses of the Arri Alexa so far in feature filmmaking. The most impressive aspect of Young’s treatment, is that while the camera does evoke a time gone by, it retains a crucial sense of the now.
Through and through there is a timelessness to the filmmaking of Selma. It is a film that should, along with Twelve Years A Slave, The Butler and Belle, be celebrated for its fine cinematic storytelling and as a necessary examination of the folly of white supremacy and the solemnity of black resistance. Forget the transience of the awards season; Selma is a robust and elegant film and its impact will be felt for years to come.